So… what happens when you get a group of survivors of childhood sexual abuse together to talk about media reporting of our experiences – and given them felt tips, Post-it notes and time. Well, something more positive than you’d ever imagine. Back in the Autumn Survivors’ Collective held an open forum, at our home the Canvas Café, to do just that. As a diverse group – different ages, backgrounds, outlooks, experiences – it was astonishing how consistent was our response to media portrayals.
We explored three main themes – positive representation and its impact, negative representation and what might be done differently. Throughout our conversations we collected the words that really, really bothered us: we believe these should be banned in reporting. They are either offensive, sensationalist, euphemistic or prejudicial:
Anyway, let’s start with the positive. This was the most in-depth and lengthy part of our conversation. We focused on positive media approaches, the potential for change and examples of good coverage.
Positive approaches for us meant putting victims/survivors centre-stage: articles and pieces by journalists who give survivors a voice and the space to speak openly and honestly about their experiences, as well as facilitating the publication or broadcast of survivors’ voices, helping us to tell our complex and diverse stories. This includes putting uncomfortable challenging knowledge into the public domain. Often this could be through more in-depth analysis and reporting research rather than just the ‘raw news’ stories. For us, these are the media professionals who show that they care.
The media can be an easy target for criticism – and often media portrayal of child sex abuse does nobody any favours – however the potential the media holds to make an impact is huge. It holds power in its hands. Good coverage can help public understanding of the issues. This has the potential to change public opinion, impact on our social climate, and help to create social movements that put pressure on the legal system, criminal justice, on government and the received view of what it means to have been abused.
More practically good reporting can show what help is available, raise awareness and through empathic handling help people to come forward, seek help or speak out.
At the end of this piece are the links to journalists, individuals, articles and documentaries that have done a good job – in our humble opinion.
But, of course, every silver lining has a cloud. Our discussion of negative representation in the media was short, energetic and to the point. We were so so clear about this one – and here are some of the things that really get to us:
An over-emphasis on the gruesome, gory details of abuse cases (this is not necessary)
A sense that abuse can only be abuse if it is “extreme”
The perpetrator of the crime portrayed as a monster rather than a person, thereby removing their responsibility for the actions;
Out of context use of the word ‘alleged’ to describe what has happened; implying disbelief or doubt that these things take place;
Victim/survivor is portrayed too simplistically as only having one set of traits – the victim (with no other life beyond what happened);
Prejudices about the attributes of someone who is abused – that they asked for it, they put themselves at risk, it was their fault.
Prejudices about who is an abuser played out with the severity minimised if the perpetrator is deemed "respectable"
So, what is to be done? You can’t have a good old moan without thinking about what needs to change. Here are our five tests of good reporting:
Does it honour the lived experience of survivors and does it respect and use their voices?
Is it respectful and honest (rather than exploitative)?
Does it focus on all elements of abuse – power, exploitation as well as sex?
Does it give a fully rounded, non-marginalised portrayal of survivors as people from every walk of life (nurses, bricklayers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, lobbyists, administrators, artists)
Does it, at all costs, avoid victim blaming?
We know that change can happen. That’s why we do what we do. And that’s why we’re delighted to be in touch with On Road Media who are embarking on a sexual abuse and the media project. This aims to improve the public, journalists’ and creative media professionals’ understanding of sexual abuse, and improve reporting and representation of these issues in mainstream programming.
Samira Ahmed, particularly for her coverage of abuse in Rotherham
James Rhodes, his book Instrumental and his ongoing honesty about his experience
Chosen, the documentary about boys abused by teachers in public schools